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AYBE WHEN YOU were a kid, you had a set of Rock 'em Sock 'em Robots. You'd battle until you were able to "knock the block off" of your opponent, or vice versa, and then you'd play again.
After a while, it was pretty tiresome.
But what can these pathetic pugilists teach us about politics?
Conveniently, if you named the blue one Democrat Tim Kaine, and the red one Republican Jerry Kilgore, and had them go at each other again and again, you'd have a reasonable facsimile of Virginia's current campaign for governor.
Especially the tiresome part.
Maybe independent candidate Russ Potts could be the referee, because the votes he receives could help determine who the winner is.
Potts, by the way, is the only candidate with the courage to say that improving transportation is going to require Virginians to pay higher taxes. He is to be commended for that, even if it only digs a deeper grave for his campaign.
Meanwhile, Kaine, the lieutenant governor, and Kilgore, the former attorney general, keep broadcasting television ads that offer a verbal interpretation of a Rock 'em Sock 'em match:
Kilgore: "You wanna raise taxes."
Kaine: "Do not."
Kilgore: "Do, too."
Kaine: "You would dismantle the tax reforms Gov. Warner and I made."
Kilgore: "Would not."
Kaine: "Would, too."
Kilgore: "You're too liberal for Virginia."
Kaine: "Am not."
Kilgore: "Are, too."
Kaine: "You're scared to debate me."
Kilgore: "Am not."
Kaine: "Are, too."
Both major candidates seem to be more interested in not losing than in winning.
Kilgore has clearly thrown down the attack gauntlet. I haven't heard anything positive, perhaps even meaningful, from him for weeks.
He has attacked Kaine numerous times on taxes for transportation, citing old information and each time leading to a revelation of facts that prove him wrong, or just confused.
Kilgore says he'll make transportation "a priority in the Virginia budget."
There's a plan.
A recent mailer issued by the Virginia GOP has three photo of Kaine and 17 mentions of his name. Kilgore's name is listed twice in fine print, first as having authorized the ad, and second, in "This advertisement is intended to benefit Jerry Kilgore," as though there might be some misunderstanding about that.
Kilgore even has a separate Web site devoted exclusively to denigrating Kaine's record. If you want to see the former attorney general's way of taking the political high road, check out kainere cord.com.
It is Kaine's inability, or choice, not to rise above this political mud bog that puts his leadership quotient in question. Even so, recent polling indicates that Kaine has at least drawn even with Kilgore, who had been maintaining a small advantage.
Kaine pledged during last Sunday's debate that no more than half of his remaining advertising would be negative. Had he focused more on the positive all along, he might have distanced himself further from Kilgore, who has so little of value to say.
At least Kaine took on the job of being Richmond's mayor, and led a city beset with difficult circumstances. He learned from that.
The statewide political climate has degenerated to the point that the primary talking points are God and taxes. The God part includes things like abortion, the right to life, and the death penalty.
On Kaine's Web site, the second item under issues, "Faith and Family," contains a 1,432-word statement that doesn't mention once that he is Roman Catholic.
He may figure--probably correctly--that being Catholic would pigeonhole him by the pro-choice crowd as being anti-abortion, or labeled by the pro-life crowd as a hypocrite, as was U.S. Sen. John Kerry, for being pro-choice and Catholic. Either way, Kaine is damned if he calls attention to his Catholic faith.
Kaine also insists, in response to Kilgore's attacks, that he will uphold Virginia law as it applies to the death penalty. He should instead say what he thinks--and persuade Virginia's voters to agree--that if you must impose the death penalty, at least impose it properly and fairly. Even Virginians don't want the wrong guy getting the chemical cocktail. Even Virginians should be concerned if the state is executing an inordinate number of poor or black men.
The voters are done a disservice by campaigns that bury the issues under reams of rhetoric and mountains of mailers. The campaigns' media blitzes have offered virtually nothing of compelling interest about either candidate--certainly nothing that a voter could accept as fact without diligent study.
This is unfortunate, because the harder voters have to work to settle upon a candidate, the less likely they are to bother. You shouldn't have to be a political junkie to take an interest in who the next governor will be.
The election of George Allen in 1993 ushered in the Republican revolution in Virginia and foretold what would happen in the U.S. Congress a year later. That was interesting.
Then came Jim Gilmore, who sailed into office on his famous "No Car Tax" pledge. Voters drooled at the thought, and didn't bother to ask Gilmore to account for the lost revenue. Gilmore's tactic was interesting, but in retrospect, irresponsible.
Gov. Mark Warner presented
Here's a surprise: Given what we can decipher about the two candidates, I have to give Kaine the nod, partly on his merits and partly by default.
The Kilgore campaign favors economic growth and good health care, and is against gangs and domestic violence. These we can call "safe," or "consider the alternative" positions. He wants voters to think he's an expert on what it takes to make Virginia better, and things of that nature.
Other than that, Kilgore offers little. He wants to "rein in real estate taxes," which is a local issue if there ever was one. And in search of an issue, he came out against centers where for day laborers can gather--another local issue.
He also wants to put every proposed tax increase to a referendum--a sure-fire plan for nothing ever getting done.
A huge advantage for Kaine, one he has abused, is that he is running on the coattails of Gov. Warner's accomplishments and popularity. It would be wise for Virginians to stay the course, and Kaine is the guy to do just that.
RICHARD AMRHINE is a writer and editor with The Free Lance-Star.